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Brattleboro Seeks Good Uses For Flood-Prone Housing

Susan Keese
The buildings at Melrose Terrace are structurally sound, but the complex is in a flood hazard zone.

The Brattleboro Housing Authority is asking the public to come up with a new use for Melrose Terrace, a public housing complex in West Brattleboro. The 50-year-old complex can no longer receive federal subsidies because it’s in a flood hazard zone. Its residents will move to new public housing in a few years. But officials say the sturdy, red brick buildings at Melrose should be good for something. Suggestions have been pouring in.

Melrose Terrace is a secluded little neighborhood of brick buildings built along the Whetstone Brook. Its tenants are senior citizens and people with disabilities. They had to evacuate during Tropical Storm Irene, when the brook tore through the complex and caused a lot of damage. But Brattleboro Housing Authority Director Chris Hart says the buildings themselves are sound.

"They held up extremely well through the tropical storm," Hart says. "The insides were a mess. But the buildings are very, very sturdy."

Hart says her agency had a hard time getting approval to make repairs and move the 80 Melrose residents back until new housing is built.

"They’ve now actually put into the federal code that you cannot spend public money in flood hazard or wetlands," Hart says. "And I agree with that. Certainly this population shouldn’t be here -- the elderly and the non-elderly disabled."

"One idea that I read is to use it as art space. So artists could rent these. They can't live here, but they could certainly rent out a space. And they would know that flooding is a potential." - Brattleboro Housing Authority Director Chris Hart

But Hart says Melrose has a lot to recommend it. She says it’s quiet. The sound of the brook muffles the traffic on Route 9. And there’s a lot of privacy compared to most public housing.

"Most everybody has their own front door and their own back door, " Hart says. "It’s very walkable; there are lots of paths through it, very mature trees and bushes."

So Hart put out a call for 100 great ideas for the 8-acre property. Responses have been coming in by mail and on the community website, ibrattleboro.com. Hart’s been reading them.

"One idea that I read is to use it as art space," she says. "So artists could rent these. They can’t live here, but they could certainly rent out a space. And they would know that flooding is a potential."

Others have suggested renting the buildings out as office space. Hart scrolls through the ideas posted on the website. "Community gardens, dog park, a drive-in theater for home movies, band stand with picnic grounds, paintball playground, a place for billionaires to come to experience being a not-rich American for a week." Other suggestions include using the complex as a hands-on learning lab, where students at the career center can learn and practice  building maintenance.

"Here’s one," says Hart. It says, "‘I’d like to see it stay as it is."

Hart doesn’t think that’s possible. But she says finding out what is and isn’t possible will be the next step. The town plans to bring together experts, government regulators and possible funding sources, to consider all of the ideas and identify the ones that seem workable. Then a public meeting will be scheduled, probably more than one, to narrow down the possibilities. Hart hopes that process will start in October.